PHOTO: Susan Brackney
Susan Brackney
October 1, 2020

Maybe it’s been a while since you took a hard look at your shovels, rakes, hoes, shears and other garden tools. Are they as neat as a pin? Or do you store them in a dirt-caked, rust-coated jumble?

Whether you’ve got a big garden and tons of home canning to do or you operate a commercial farm, sometimes keeping up with every last chore—like cleaning, sharpening and repairing your gardening equipment—simply isn’t practical.

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Still, if you are able to take a long afternoon to give your garden tools some extra attention, the time you spend on their care can pay dividends next season.


Basic Supplies

Before tackling those tools, you’ll want to gather up a few items to make the job easier—and safer. I wear goggles to keep wood splinters and any stray metal fragments out of my baby browns, and I don a pair of lightweight, rubberized gloves when scrubbing with cleaning solutions or applying oils. To avoid inhaling any rust or sawdust, I also wear a protective mask.

Plan to work on rusty or dull implements? You’ll need:

  • White cleaning vinegar
  • Large, stiff-bristled brush
  • Smaller wire brushes
  • Steel wool
  • Lubricating oil of your choice
  • Clean rags
  • Coarse file and/or whetstone

And for refinishing wooden tool handles, gather:

  • Sandpaper
  • Boiled linseed oil (and turpentine for clean-up)
  • Wood glue (optional)

Rust-Busting

To remove light rust build-up, first dry-brush any soil that may be clinging to the tool you’re restoring. Next, gently scrub rusted areas with steel wool or a wire brush. Periodically wipe dislodged rust with a dry rag.

For heavier rust, soak tool heads in a one-to-one solution of white vinegar and water or apply the solution directly to the rusty spots with a rag.

Some people soak their rusty implements in that white vinegar solution overnight. However, I’ve had good luck simply applying the vinegar, letting it sit for five to 10 minutes, and then scrubbing over it with a wire brush or steel wool.

Afterward, I wipe away the rust residue with a vinegar-soaked rag, rinse the metal with water, and dry it well. To help guard against future rusting, apply a thin coat of the lubricant of your choice.

(Boiled linseed oil, vegetable oil, thinned-out motor oil, or even a spot of multi-purpose grease will do the trick.)

Handle Help

My favorite, go-to shovel—pictured above—needed a ton of TLC after this season. Because its wooden handle had begun to split and splinter, I took the time to sand it along its full length. (Usually, sanding out a rough spot here or there will suffice.)

Then I applied a few thin coats of boiled linseed oil, allowing time in between for the oil to penetrate the wood. I finished by wiping off the excess oil with a clean, dry rag.

The handle of my old pitchfork flew off earlier this year. Although I could’ve purchased a replacement, I wanted to try to reattach the original handle first. I removed debris from the inside of the top of the pitchfork—where the handle had been inserted—and lightly cleaned and sanded the section of the wooden handle to be reinserted.

Next, I painted a liberal amount of wood glue around the end of the handle, reinserted it into the top of the pitchfork, and lightly tapped the pitchfork’s head further down over the handle with a small mallet.

This method of care works well for most garden tools with loose heads. But there are times when you’re better off replacing old handles entirely.

Got a handle that has broken off? How the working end of your garden tool was originally fastened will dictate what kind of replacement handle you’ll need. For instance, many tool heads are attached to their handles with rivets or screws. Many others—like my pitchfork—have friction-fit ends which just fit snugly together.


Read more: Check out these 7 tips for repairing wooden-handled tools.


Look Sharp

My poor shovel also got pretty dinged up when I accidentally drove its point down onto some buried limestone. In fact, its entire digging edge was downright dull. So were my hoe, loppers, and scythe.

To restore the shovel and hoe, I held the coarse file at a 45-degree angle and filed with uni-directional, diagonal strokes along their cutting edges.

For the loppers and scythe, I moistened a small whetstone and, as with the coarse file, slid it across their cutting edges in just one direction and on a diagonal. To finish, I applied a thin coat of multi-purpose grease and, although my garden tools aren’t exactly as good as new, with some basic care they’re certainly much closer to it.

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